Todor Kobakov doesn’t think of himself as a jack of all musical trades, but the range of his work suggests otherwise. The multi-talented composer, musician, and producer has scored films and TV shows of many different genres; released Pop Music, a solo album of devastatingly beautiful piano melodies; created gorgeous string arrangements for the Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire; enjoyed a pop radio hit with Major Maker; and produced Odario’s recent hip-hop EP Good Morning Hunter, to name a few highlights. Even during the pandemic, Kobakov has been busy writing scores, including for the comedy Faith Heist – on which he’s collaborating with emerging composers TiKa Simone and Iva Delić – the “indie/artsy” Peppergrass, and a documentary on artificial intelligence (AI).

Kobakov’s upbringing in a musical family in Bulgaria, his studies in classical piano at U of T, his early jobs working on music for commercials, and his friendships across Toronto’s music scene have all contributed to his skills in using sound to enhance visuals.

“It’s not a talent, it’s a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’ve been working on music for a long time. I think my classical training has given me good discipline. In my solo work I’m more into electronics, which helps with film production, and being in the music industry helped me produce other artists. It’s nice to jump from project to project. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; I’m just trying to bring out the best in an artist and help with their vision.”

Helping realize a director’s vision can be complicated, of course. “It’s always different,” he says. “I try to extract the most important part of the story early on, and enhance it. I’m trying to help navigate the flow, and there’s a lot of repair work if the flow lacks energy, or a scene is not romantic enough, or too romantic.”

The Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue (starring Ethan Hawke) was a unique challenge for Kobakov and collaborators Steve London and David Braid: creating a score about a jazz trumpeter without using jazz trumpet. “Figuring out what my lead instrument would be took a long time,” Kobakov recalls. “It ended up being a Rhodes piano going through a pedal that makes it sound like a broken record. That added a nostalgia element. And everything was very slow and dreamy, because he was always high. At the same time, the director didn’t want it to be too dark, so that was an interesting balance to achieve.”

“Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it”

Kobakov often works under the radar to subtly transmit atmosphere and mood. “I don’t want the score to jump out at you, I just want to support the story,” he says. For the TV series Cardinal, he wove the sounds of the northern landscape into the score. “I’m always trying to find elements to subconsciously enhance the story,” he explains. “It was filmed in North Bay, and I went out and banged on some trees to get sounds for the score’s percussion elements. I’m trying to get into the fabric of the story as much as possible sonically, so the work reflects the surroundings.”

And for Faith Heist, Kobakov created percussion sounds with fellow composer TiKa Simone’s voice. “Instead of a shaker and tambourines, we used the human voice, which adds a whole other dimension,” he says. “It’s tangible, you can relate to it.”

Sometimes he works against preconceptions – in the score for the CBC-TV Indigenous comedy/drama Trickster, for instance, which leaned on electronics. “We wanted to blend the worlds,” he says. “We wanted it to feel like things are normal, but something is not quite right. The score helped, especially in the first episode, when nobody was sure what the show was about. Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it.”

Kobakov enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between the instruments, the background sounds, the visuals, and the expectations of the listeners. “Film is an interesting thing,” he says. “It’s like a band where everybody’s got their part and if everything works you have a great piece of art, but if the drummer is soloing all the time, it’s distracting. The risks I’ll take or the experiments I do might be a little different, but I tell clients I’m not changing the rules, just the sounds. That seems to be working for me.”

The cover art for Vanille’s album Soleil ’96 looks more like it came out in 1968. Admittedly, the young Rachel Leblanc, the person behind Vanille, can boast being born in the mid-90s – but she totally owns the “old soul” label because of her passion for the stylistic richness of the past. Come along for some time travel aboard the ‘96 machine.

Vanille, Rachel Leblanc “I’ve always thought I wasn’t born at the right time,” says Leblanc, with sunshine in her voice. “On the other hand, romanticizing the past is really fun, and it’s even better because I can go digging into so many different eras. Everything we’re acquired throughout the history of music, I hold in my handbag.”

Launched in January, Soleil ’96 is her first Francophone LP, following the release of an Anglophone EP three years ago: My Grandfather Thinks I’m Going to Hell. Since then, Leblanc has clearly avoided hell, and instead, the summer sun appears on the cover of her album. But the LP evokes more seasons than one. Each left its mark,” Leblanc says. “We mostly talk about the time we need to get over something,” she says. “The song ‘Les jours manqués,’ that closes the album, reminds us that love may be defeated, but we move on. There’s progess, just as there is with the weather, and the seasons going by.”

Emmanuel Ethier (Pierre Lapointe, Corridor, Peter Peter, Chocolat) saw Leblanc live at Brasserie Beaubien in 2019, and wrote to her the next day to let her know he could help her fine-tune her material. “That album is a great lesson in perseverance,” he laughs, recalling how he had to juggle several of his own projects to work on Vanille as well. “She could’ve given up, or asked another producer. It took a long time.” Yet, the producer also perceived in the project a desire not to move things forward on a whim.

The impostor syndrome is felt on both sides. While Leblanc is aware that she’s still young, and has a lot to learn, Ethier – who has accomplished so much – doesn’t feel that he’s done something special. “I never make music for myself when I work for an artist on their project,” he says. “My job as a producer was to think like Rachel. If I end up imposing something, I think it creates an ethical problem.”

Although Leblanc was petrified by Ethier’s presence at her Brasserie Beaubien show, she jumped at the opportunity he extended. “He allowed me to kick my own butt,” she says. “I figured that if I deserved such an opportunity, I had a duty to seize it.”

It helped that most of the songs were already written, almost fully formed, pretty much in a single session. “I always write alone in my room with my guitar and spend a few hours telling myself that it’s not good, and finally, after a bit of work, I like it,” she says with a giggle. “I just let the song be. It preserves a de-constructed aspect that is a good representation of who I am.”

The influence of the sixties can be felt throughout the album. Even before hearing a single note, the cover art takes us back. Rachel’s influences stem from that era, but also from the heart of the ’90s, with a hint of garage rock, on top of which sits her melancholy – yet not quite sad — voice. “I often cite Karo as an influence, and it’s true. And Stereolab, too. British music from 30 years ago speaks to me,” Leblanc. “We spent a lot of time talking about and listening to her influences,” Ethier remembers. “I wanted to capture that ‘yé-yé’ side, and her desire to anchor herself in the newer British psychedelic movement at the same time.”

There’s a running gag in Rachel’s entourage that she only listens to albums released in 1968. “I know, it’s super-specific,” jokes Ethier. But what if that bygone era still has things to teach us? Maybe everything does deserve a second life, in which case, Vanille fits the bill.

“My second album is going to be totally immersed in the hippie/Mother Nature philosophy,” says Leblanc. “The pandemic had a negative effect on my morale, and I want to express all the many ways I managed to escape, thanks to the forest.”

Radio-Canada recognized her as the Breakthrough Jazz Artist of the Year in 2019, and this month, she’s on the cover of Châtelaine magazine, not to mention her 2020 JUNO for Best Jazz Album last summer. Dominique Fils-Aimé is one of the most prominent Canadian musicians of the moment, in all markets and languages. Her new album Three Little Words comes out Feb. 12, 2021.

Dominique Fils-Aimé She’s known for her ability to tame the blue note, making it work for her with ease, to write her own songs, and to tackle monumental classics like “Strange Fruit” without batting an eyelash, delivering an excellent rendition. To hear Fils-Aimé’s voice for the first time is to believe in the reincarnation of revered giants like Billie Holiday. It’s believing that, in the end, jazz has never died – even though Montréal has long since lost the El Morocco club, and other leading institutions of the golden age of cabarets and big brass sections. It’s as if she belongs to another era; a lost paradise.

On her third solo album, the final episode of a trilogy that started with Nameless in 2018 – a musical triptych imbued with a thirst for emancipation and freedom – Fils-Aimé extends her range, and her horizons. The album opens with “Grow Mama Grow,” a soul song with doo-wop tones, that also incorporates a clarinet score that evokes both the klezmer tradition and Arabian sounds. It’s difficult to choose one of two worlds so far away from each other, and that’s is precisely the point.

“There are influences that intersect, that have blended together to create something else,” says Fils-Aimé. “I allowed myself to use all the warm influences that I’ve listened to in my life. Music that comes as much from Latin America, as from the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, as from the Arab world. I fed off all that, and allowed myself to use everything I had consumed, and bring it out in this album.”

The album’s first three songs also borrow quite a bit from the Motown era, in large part because of the genre’s typical handclaps, mingling with joyfully repetitive choruses, and divine vocal harmonies that are entirely sung by Fils-Aimé herself. One would think they’re listening to an old vinyl record by The Supremes at the beginning of “While We Wait,” but the rest of the song quickly transforms into something closer to Gospel… something downright spiritual.

“My sister studied music, and her CD collection was almost like being in a record store,” she says. “Every day, while she was at school, I’d go shop in her collection, and I would choose one or two albums, not more, just so she wouldn’t notice. Some I played a lot more than others. I remember one Aretha Franklin album that I must’ve kept for about a month. I was fascinated by her voice. Those are among the first songs I memorized, even though I didn’t speak English.”

From catchy soul, the singer-songwriter switches to the blues (“Could It Be”) before entering a more introspective, meditative segment, made up of contrasting, sometimes luminous laments. The title piece breaks with this sadder yet hopeful passage, filled with a desire for redemption. From the very first bars, the percussion integrated into “Three Little Words” announces new colours, and an unexpected taste of African music – reminiscent of Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré. What Fils-Aimé offers here is really in the same register as what these two Malian women are producing.

“It’s true that it’s different from what I’ve done in the past,” she says. “I wanted to get back to the roots, with primal rhythms that are really hard-hitting. Percussion has that effect on me. They hit me and make me want to move. There’s something incredibly organic about a taut skin vibrating over some kind of wood pillar. Percussion is almost visceral.”

Doing It for the Right Reasons

It’s common knowledge that Fils-Aimé dabbled in photography  public relations before veering into music, but it’s definitely not because the singer was unaware of her own talent, or discovered it late, or by chance. She sang from a very young age. “I’d record myself on the answering machine when my mom wasn’t home,” she says. ”I’d sing songs that I liked, because I was curious to hear what I sounded like. I still remember how shocked I was when I heard myself for the first time, but I didn’t care, because I loved singing so much. I told myself that I’d sing in key eventually. I’d also sign up for the school talent shows to overcome my stage fright. I’ve always loved going towards things that scare me, because you feel so strong when you confront them!”

If Fils-Aimé resisted her destiny as a solo artist for so long, it’s in large part because she preferred remaining in the shadows. Not because shy, but because discretion becomes her. “I started making music professionally with a friend who’s a filmmaker,” she says. “We founded a small company and I wrote music for her videos. I always felt more comfortable with the idea of composing, and not necessarily being a public figure.”

Even as a child she rejected the idea of having a career in music. While some would sell their souls – or their moms – to become stars, the Montréal singer has always feared celebrity. She’s the antithesis of an influencer or an “Insta-babe” turned singer. “I have to admit fame has always scared me,” she says. “There’s something about it that I find truly frightening. Right now it’s fine, there are a few people who know me, it’s totally manageable. It’s not like I’ve become a superstar, but sometimes I find it intense to have more attention than before, or more people who recognize me. It’s always bizarre for me.”

Her current wave of success wasn’t part of the original plan. In fact, Fils-Aimé’s participation in La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice televised singing competition) was prompted by a researcher who found her most obscure recordings online and convinced her to give it a go. “I was really expecting to stay underground, to interest only a few niche radio stations, very, very specialized,” she says. “I would’ve been fine to remain a more obscure artist, but in the end, I’m not going to turn my back on the fact that there are more people interested in what I do than I expected; I’m grateful for that. It allows me to reach more people, and do them some good.”

Sharing the love: that’s what motivates Fils-Aimé to tame her fears. It is an ideal that’s wise and altruistic, and in complete contrast with the race for likes at the root of social media.